Introduction to Our Gang Comedy Shorts
Because they have been so accessible to viewers, over so many years, the reputation -- or at least the audience familiarity -- of the Our Gang kids arguably looms larger than that of other top-tier acts that originated at the Hal Roach Studios: Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, and Harold Lloyd.
TCM's epic 24-hour, 53-film marathon showcases not only the familiar talkie shorts -- starring the likes of George "Spanky" McFarland, Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, Matthew "Stymie" Beard, Jackie Cooper, and Dickie Moore -- but also the rarely-screened silent films, from as early as 1922.
The series was the brainchild of Robert F. McGowan, who spent the late 1910s as a prop man and struggling scenario writer. Comedian Charley Chase championed McGowan's work and made it possible for him to pitch to Hal Roach the idea of a kid-centered series of shorts. Roach okayed the production of One Terrible Day (1922), with McGowan at the helm (along with co-director Tom McNamara), and the long-running franchise was born. McGowan's nephew, Robert Anthony McGowan, was a core member of the writing team throughout the life of the Our Gang series. In time, Robert F. assumed the role of supervising producer, allowing Robert A. to direct many of the shorts. In order to avoid confusion between the two Bob McGowans, the nephew, when directing, was credited as Anthony Mack.
The earliest film in TCM's series is Fire Fighters (1922), which almost plays like a sketchbook of ideas as it experiments with different comedic forms. At first, all the roles are enacted by animals dressed in clothes, as duck J. Quincy Quack steps out on his wife with a comely young hen, raising the ire of canine T. Towser Barkus. After five minutes of this, it suddenly shifts to folksy rustic comedy featuring an all-African-American cast. The film flirts with negative racial stereotypes (for example, the child is named Booker T. Bacon) but never does anything truly offensive in its pursuit of laughs. After five minutes of this, we follow Booker (Ernest Morrison) as he joins up with his gang of Caucasian ragamuffins, and at that point, we at last arrive in familiar Our Gang territory.
In Fire Fighters, the Our Gang formula is already in place, with the resourceful guttersnipes building an improvised fire truck to race against the prissy rich kid's store-bought model. And they further indulge their firefighter fantasies in a clubhouse outfitted with Rube Goldbergian contraptions.
Before he came to Hollywood, McGowan was a fireman in Denver, Colorado. No doubt this film (and the 1932 revisitation of the theme, Hook and Ladder) reflect his youthful fascination with the occupation... and the hardware that goes with it.
But in Fire Fighters, the children do not yet have much individual personality. They are almost like props -- the dressed-up ducks and chickens that opened the film. As the series continued, under McGowan's tutelage, the kids' acting became more expressive, and their characterizations grew more defined.
In the following year's July Days (1923), we find several cast members who would be long-running members of the gang. Allen "Farina" Hoskins, Peggy Cartwright and Jackie Condon (who had appeared in Fire Fighters) are now joined by Joe Cobb (clearly intended as a miniature Roscoe Arbuckle), Mary Kornman and Mickey Daniels.
For obvious reasons, the cast of the Our Gang comedies was always rotating, with young talent periodically folded in as some cast members became too old for short pants. After Kornman and Daniels graduated from the series, they returned to the Roach Studios in a short-lived franchise aimed at the college-age set: The Boyfriends (1930-32).
In One Wild Ride (1925), the gang has crafted a taxi out of cast-off parts, decorated with Rascalese lettering (the distinctive Our Gang alphabet, with backward S's and N's painted in broad white brushstrokes), and pushed by a weary horse (a sight gag that would be oft-repeated in years to come). When the horse is repossessed by the local blacksmith (Mickey Daniels's real-life father, Richard), the kids resort to free-wheeling it down steep inclines, sending Farina on a crash course (of questionable taste) with a watermelon truck below.
Shivering Spooks (1926) is probably the best of the silents, as the kids burrow into the home of a phony spiritualist and disrupt his psychic consultation with a room full of bourgeois followers. The mystic (George B. French) decides to rid his home of pests by using his smoke and mirrors to frighten the children away.
The silent Our Gang shorts are scored (by David Barrett and Brian Brill) with a limited number of musical themes, frequently looped. This is hopefully a nod to the stock music of Leroy Shield, which is played incessantly and repeatedly in the O.G. films of the 1930s.
An early talkie, Boxing Gloves (1929) is one of the films in which the Our Gang kids seem to exist in their own universe. Although we do witness a soda pop salesman -- necessary to a gag in which Joe Cobb and "Chubby" Chaney vie for the attention of a curly-topped seductress (Jean Darling) -- this seems to be a world of the gang's creation, and they are unfettered by parental authority (a key ingredient to the films' popularity with children). Observing the rift between the two obese chums, frustrated fight promoters Dickie Moore and "Wheezer" Hutchins employ clever psychology to lure Joe and Chubby into the ring and get them to fight for real.
In Shiver My Timbers (1931), a grizzled sailor (Billy Gilbert) concocts a scheme to cure the kids of truancy. He signs them on as his crew, and he and his accomplices stage acts of mock barbarity to scare the children straight. But the well-intentioned pirates underestimate the pluck and resourcefulness of the innocent children, once their beloved schoolteacher Miss Crabtree falls victim to the salty seamen.
Sometimes the simpler stories are the most effective. In Birthday Blues (1932), Spanky and Dickie raise money for a birthday present for their neglected mother by baking a huge cake filled with "prizes." Under Stymie's direction, the baking is a fiasco, and the cake itself -- a cube-shaped monstrosity that undulates and groans -- is a surreal thing to behold. Things get even more bizarre when the neighborhood children start pulling odd treasures from their servings: shoes, a hot water bottle, and a mousetrap that springs on one unfortunate kid's tongue.
Robert F. McGowan bowed out of the series after directing the 1936 entry Divot Diggers. In 1937, Roach sold the franchise off to MGM, where the films continued to be made for seven more years, with new cast members including Robert "Mickey" Blake and Billy "Froggy" Laughlin. Robert A. McGowan followed the franchise to MGM and continued to write and direct.
The final Our Gang short, Dancing Romeo, was released on April 29, 1944. The end of the series was due to their waning popularity (without the strong creative rudder of a Hal Roach or Robert F. McGowan) as well as the general decline in the short film as a regular component of a typical theatre's daily offering.
The name "Little Rascals" originated in the 1950s, when Roach began distributing the shorts to television stations. Because he had sold the trademarked name "Our Gang" to MGM, the films had to be packaged under a different title. The new moniker wasn't plucked out of thin air. It was a variation of the way the kids had been credited in the early shorts: "Hal Roach presents His Rascals."
When the Our Gang films appeared on television, the opening title sequences were replaced by generic new ones, so the films could be re-branded as Little Rascals. After decades of being crudely altered in this way, the original title cards have been restored. Even if one has seen the films already, viewing the original titles -- often rendered as beautiful hand-painted cards -- is an unexpected treat.
by Bret Wood